These Elevator Innovations Are Changing the Built Environment

The modern elevator has been around in one form or another since the 19th century, but the elevators of today look very different from the ones that existed during the days of the phonograph. Someone magically transported from late-1800s Chicago to 21st-century Dubai would scarcely recognize the machinery that now sits at the heart of every high-rise building. (He’d also have to figured out the whole “horseless carriage” deal.)

Elevators have already changed a great deal in the past 150 years. But if anything, the pace of change is accelerating. These days, some exciting elevator innovations promise to transform how we build our cities and transport people and goods. Which are you most excited about?

Carbon Fiber Ropes

Virtually all modern passenger elevators use steel cables for support and stability. Steel is a strong material that disperses energy well and doesn’t cost a fortune to procure. But it’s far from the strongest structural material in use today — and that’s a major problem for the next generation of supertall buildings. To build much higher than the world’s current record-holding skyscraper, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, we need a new type of cable material.

Enter carbon fiber cables. According to Fast Company, the KONE Corporation’s UltraRope carbon fiber cable technology “will allow skyscrapers to reach new heights, let elevators go twice as far, will last twice as long as old-school cables, and can even reduce elevator delays on windy days.”

KONE’s innovation could be key to breaking the “kilometer barrier,” the semi-theoretical building-height limit that posits skyscrapers much taller than a kilometer (just over 3,000 feet) aren’t efficient or economical under any circumstances. By allowing for longer elevator shafts and higher carrying capacities, carbon fiber cables could help ambitious builders shatter the kilometer barrier and perhaps approach the mile-high mark.

The first UltraRope elevator is now operating in Singapore; time will tell whether interest in this novel and potentially game-changing technology grows.

Cableless Elevators

Cableless elevators sound like they’ve been ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel, but they’re very real — and they’re about to enter service. The Verge reports that ThyssenKrupp is gearing up to test cableless elevators that use a magnetic propulsion system (similar to maglev trains) that reduces friction and allows for horizontal travel. Eventually, these elevators could serve as a sort of local transportation system that supplements street-level transit.

The Next Big Thing Isn’t What You Think

One of the ironclad laws of technological change goes something like this: The “next big thing” rarely turns out to be such. In the mid-19th century, everyone knew that the world of the future would be powered by steam. In the 1950s, everyone knew that miniaturized atomic power would solve the planet’s energy problems. In the 1990s, everyone knew that boxy desktop computers were here to stay.

The point is, technologies come and go, and the most lasting innovations tend to be the ones we initially overlook. So while it’s exciting and thought-provoking to peer into the future of the elevator, we need to remain humble — always mindful that we don’t know as much as we think about what’s coming down the line (or shaft).

Not Just for People: 4 Different Types of Elevators

What’s in an elevator? The answer sounds easy: cables, pulleys, winches, metal, a whole bunch of mechanical and electronic stuff…and people.

Yes, elevators carry people. Or do they? While it’s tempting to define “elevator” along the lines of “vertical people mover,” that’s actually only half the story. (Perhaps less, depending on who’s counting.) Elevators can move all kinds of things, from vehicles and machinery to grain and even liquids. In fact, some of the most productive and economically important types of elevators rarely if ever carry human cargo. Here’s a look at four different types of elevators that are both common in the modern built environment and critical to everyday commerce.

  1. Service Elevators

Though humans can and do (and often have to) ride in service elevators, they’re mostly just along for the ride. Service elevators are the heavy-duty vertical movers that keep large buildings and institutions functioning smoothly. They’re typically constructed with larger shafts to accommodate more massive cars. Depending on the elevator’s location and function, in fact, a service elevator car can have as much as twice the floor square footage as a passenger elevator and boast ceilings several feet higher.

Service elevators transport all manner of cargo. In hotels, it’s common to see service carts and furniture move from floor to floor; in offices and manufacturing facilities, bulky equipment and machinery is the norm.

  1. Car Elevators

Car elevators are heavy-duty ferriers made for carrying motor vehicles. They’re typically used in urban garages that lack the room for drive-in/drive-out configurations; condo-dwellers might use them as part of their long-term car storage routine. Some luxurious single-family homes have car elevators, too, particularly when the owner is a collector. And car elevators are used in industrial settings as well, chiefly at auto manufacturing and finishing facilities.

  1. Grain Elevators

For most folks, grain elevators are simply mysterious structures that dot rural horizons or populate gritty urban industrial zones. As agricultural production has become more efficient and less labor-intensive, many grain elevators have either been abandoned or torn down altogether. Their empty hulks are veritable playgrounds for daredevil explorers, who explore their decaying innards in search of heretofore unknown treasures.

Many grain elevators still work, though — and most perform a valuable service. The typical grain elevator is about 100 feet tall, with a ground-level loading area and roofline spout. Trucks drop off grain at the loading area, where it’s deposited into buckets that follow a vertical conveyor belt — the “elevator” component. Once the buckets reach the top, they deposit their contents into the spout, which shunts the grain into the structure’s interior. To remove the grain for commercial use, trucks or trains simply back up to the loading area and take what they need.

  1. Ore/Coal Elevators

Ore and coal elevators are dirty, grimy things that are absolutely essential to our way of life. They’re similar in principle to grain elevators — their goal is to ferry raw materials into a holding area, where they wait for further processing — but tend to be used in shipyard or railyard environments and often simply provide short-haul transportation, not long-term storage.

These aren’t the only types of elevators that aren’t made exclusively for ferrying people. What other interesting types of elevators can you think of? Examples might be closer than you realize.

New York’s Churches Get a Boost from Local Businesses

Unlike its sister cities across the pond, New York City isn’t noted for its soaring cathedrals — unless we’re talking about cathedrals of commerce — or precious neighborhood churches. In Manhattan and close-in parts of the outer boroughs, towering buildings crowd out even the most ambitious steeples.

But that doesn’t mean New York isn’t a city of churches. The metropolis’s 8.5 million residents practice every imaginable faith, gathering regularly at the call of untold thousands of bells to worship and leave their worldly troubles behind. Unfortunately, the buildings in which New York’s faithful congregate are often in a sorry state. Due to dwindling congregations and tough economic conditions, many of the city’s churches face insolvency and are unable to afford even the most basic maintenance.

A Solemn Partnership Takes Root in Brooklyn

That’s where prosperous companies like Start Elevator come in. New York City has been good to Start and its ilk, and the company resolved some years ago to give back in meaningful fashion. It found the perfect opportunity in the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, an historic structure in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

According to a Start Elevator release, the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church sustained more than $500,000 in damage during Hurricane Sandy, mostly due to basement flooding. And even before the hurricane, the institution was on shaky financial ground: Beset by rising crime in the neighborhood and an aging, dwindling congregation, the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church nearly closed in the early 2010s.

In the end, rank-and-file parishioners stepped up to plug the church’s gaping financial hole before and after the hurricane — the basement, critically, is now more or less like new. But there was one project that proved frustratingly out of reach for the flock: The elevator that ferried people and supplies from the church’s main floor to its basement.

According to Start Elevator, repairing the hurricane-damaged elevator would have cost anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000, an unmanageable sum for a tapped-out congregation and near-insolvent church. So Start Elevator owner John O’Shea did what any decent person would: He offered to take on the project free of charge. Fast forward to 2015 and the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church is back on its feet — and moving comfortably from floor to floor.

“When John learned of the parish’s hardship, he realized he could do a small deed that would have a huge impact. We never asked him to fix the elevator for free, but the fact that he offered to do so shows what a good man he is. Generosity must come from the heart – from the Lord – and John genuinely cared and was very kind,” says Father Eamon Murray, the church leader.

New York City’s Business Community Can Lead by Example

Start Elevator’s partnership with a single Brooklyn church won’t revitalize the city’s storied religious building stock overnight. But it offers a clear indication that even relatively small businesses can have an outsize impact on hundreds-strong congregations — and immeasurably improve the character and vitality of the neighborhoods that host them. Here’s to a future in which successful companies like Start Elevator invest directly in historic preservation and keep their communities in touch with what matters most.